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Speak good English - Incorrect use of pronouns — 5

BY: Isaac Yeboah

This week, we are going to discuss the use of pronouns when the pronouns don’t refer to any noun in particular.

As we have said before, pronouns are used in place of nouns to avoid repeating the nouns over and over again.

Now, since pronouns are used in place of nouns, every pronoun we use in a sentence must have a noun it refers to, otherwise that pronoun will be meaningless.

In other words, a pronoun, by its definition and usage, must have an antecedent, that is a noun it refers to — for the pronoun to be meaningful.

For instance, in the sentence: When the boys got here, they asked of Ms Oti’s whereabouts. The pronoun they has the noun boys as its antecedent.

This means that the pronoun they agrees with its antecedent noun boys in terms of number. The noun boys is plural and the pronoun they is also plural. The common mistake many people make is that they use pronouns which do not agree in number with their antecedent nouns or words which don’t have any antecedents at all.

Look at the following sentences.

1) Not many people can afford luxury cars because they are very expensive.

2) If you meet somebody in the house, tell them you are looking for the landlord.

In the first sentence, the pronoun it, either has no antecedent or at best does not agree in number with its antecedent noun cars. As it is, if it refers to cars, then it is incorrect since cars is plural, while it is singular. The correct pronoun should be they to agree with the plural noun cars. The correct sentence should, therefore, be: Not many people can afford luxury cars because they are very expensive.

In the second sentence, the pronoun, them does not agree in number with its antecedent noun somebody. The pronoun them is plural while the antecedent noun somebody is singular. For the indefinite somebody, the corresponding pronouns are he or she and so the sentence should be: If you meet somebody in the house, tell him or her you are looking for the landlord. Now, the use of the pronouns they and them in place of somebody, someone,  anybody, anyone etc is common nowadays but I think it is incorrect.

What do we do when you have to use a verb to agree with somebody someone, anyone etc. Do we use a singular or a plural verb?

Yet another problem with pronouns is the creation of uncertainty in their use because one pronoun could refer to more than one noun in the sentence.

For instance, if you write or say: when the boys met the girls, they insulted them, you have created uncertainty because the pronouns they and them could refer to both the boys and the girls, since they and them are plural (just like boys and girls).

In a situation such as this, you have to repeat one of the nouns to do away with the ambiguity. Eg, when the boys met the girls, the girls insulted them. In this case, everybody will know that them refers to boys not girls.


By Quame Asomaning
Junior Graphic/graphic.com.gh/Ghana